Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jan 10th 2009
The Familiar of Zero
DVD - Box Set
Louise is the terror of Tristein Academy's school of magic. Not because of her temper or imperious manner—though she has a healthy surplus of both—but because her every attempt at magic explodes, blowing bystanders into the bleachers. When the time comes to summon her familiar, a sacred rite that will bond a magical creature to her for life, she is understandably nervous. Her worst fears are confirmed when she summons, not a powerful creature, but a normal teenaged boy. Rudely yanked from his simple existence in Japan, Hiraga Saito is naturally rather confused to find himself in a faraway world of sorcery and medieval intrigue, but he's the flexible type, and he soon adapts. Louise, a member of the magic-wielding upper crust, initially treats the apparently powerless Saito as a lowly peasant, but as it becomes clear that there's something extraordinary about him, the inevitable begins to happen. Though there will be much battling of thieves, washing of delicate undergarments, and brutal punishment for flirting with sweet-tempered maid Siesta before anything comes of it.
Sure, The Familiar of Zero's premise is derived from a long line of shounen romances about everyday Joes who are suddenly bonded to magical girls. Sure, Louise is a classic tsundere and the supporting cast is populated with quirky comedic stereotypes. Yes, director Yoshiaki Iwasaki (whose record of helming harmless fluff goes all the way back to El Hazard 2) has a relentlessly light touch that undercuts the more serious developments. And yes, his visual instincts are so pedestrian that one can't help but notice the limitations of J.C. Staff's purely routine animation. But frankly, who cares? It's been ages since a good-natured, mildly ecchi romance worth its salt hit the market, and while far from perfect, Zero is both suitably romantic and smart enough to dodge the serious pitfalls of its genre.
Iwasaki's light, upbeat tone does make the intrigue and frequent battles seem oddly inconsequential, an impression exacerbated by his flat action staging, and it also robs the darker turns that the plot takes—including a couple of dastardly betrayals and one shockingly sudden death—of their impact. But the failure of the plot as an adventure is secondary to its success as a romance. With his sarcastic spunk and unapologetic interest in the opposite sex, Saito makes a good foil for the aggressive, prideful, and surprisingly sympathetic Louise, their rapport equal parts attraction, growing mutual respect, and violent personality clash. The series' fantasy setting, though jokey, is fully integrated into the overall romance (Louise and Saito's bond as Master and Familiar is central to their relationship) and even the obligatory love triangle is genuinely workable, with Siesta sharing a viable, and far less volatile, chemistry with Saito. And as the series progresses, the silly magical hijinks and comically abusive relationships give way to an appropriately romantic second half that, thanks to Louise's ferocity and Saito's matter-of-factness, never grows syrupy and isn't afraid to let its characters commit.
Replicating the success of Rie Kugiyama's unabashedly fetishistic Louise and Satoshi Hino's blithely confident Saito is no easy task. Of the English leads, Cristina Valenzuela is the more fortunate, as Louise has Eiji Usatsuka's blindingly cute design to fall back on. Valenzuela also has the good sense to tone down Louise's wilder swings, creating a slightly more mature variation on the character. Saito, on the other hand, is hobbled with a sadly generic design, leaving him entirely dependent on his actor. And unfortunately Jonathan Meza makes the fatal mistake of playing him with a quavering loser edge, effectively destroying his unflappable charm. Iwasaki is a veteran of romantic comedies (part of the reason, no doubt, that his action direction is so poor), but the little jolts of poignancy he teases from Louise and Saito's evolving relationship cannot survive a toned-down Louise and a dispiritingly limp Saito. Nicholas Manelick picks up some of the slack with his hilariously ham-handed take on womanizing self-aggrandizer Guiche, and most of the other supporting players are solid enough, but a romance drained of its chemistry is too sad a thing to be saved by humor.
Less crucial is Shinkichi Mitsumune's score, which is far more remarkable for its ability to keep out of the way (even when running on all cylinders) than it is for its musical qualities. It's the sonic equivalent of J.C. Staff's generic fantasy-world settings: pleasant, and in some cases downright pretty, but hardly a draw unto itself.
With its strong male lead, adorably sadistic romantic interest and definite romantic progression, it's little wonder that The Familiar of Zero spawned two sequels. Other than Kyoto Animation's coolly stylish romances and the occasional harem tripe, fans of the male side of romance have had little to dig their teeth into of late, so Zero comes at an opportune time. It may lack the complexity and emotional depth of the best romances, but even if it isn't as meaty as one would like, it's tasty enough—and towards the end, surprisingly filling.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : B-
+ Shounen romance that steers clear of harems, features strong, likeable leads, and doesn't skimp on the little emotional jabs.
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